A draft report released by the World Bank maintains that mobile telephony is rapidly shrinking the digital divide and that the main role of governments is to clear a path for private investment. The report basically calls into question the point of having a UN world conference on bridging the digital divide.
The World Bank draft report, available at http://info.worldbank.org/ict/, notes that:
The WSIS plan of action called for more than one half of the world’s population to have access to information and communication technologies (ICTs) by 2015. If that is defined as access to mobile services, that goal has already been surpassed in every developing region.
Entitled “Financing Information and Communication Infrastructure Needs in the Developing World: Public and Private Roles,” the draft report argues that the private sector has been the key driver in the spread of ICTs around the world, and is actively bridging the digital divide in the developing world.
The report notes that “gaps still exist,” particularly in poor and rural areas, and that the government has to take explicit measures to encourage the private sector to invest in infrastructure and services in those areas. There is a discussion of the role of direct government investment and other policy measures, such as national universal access funds. But in general direct public financing has had only a negligible role in spread of ICTs around the world.
Regarding the establishment of some kind of new global funding mechanism, the report considers a universal fund targeted to national government sector reform:
As access to information and communications services is directly related to the extent of sector reform (and competition, in particular) in the country concerned, the highest impact increase in donor support to ICT may very well be in the form of increased resources for support of sector reform. Today, many countries (especially the poorest) are reluctant to borrow for such support, and are seeking flexible, rapid-response grant support. It is possible to envision Technical Assistance funding to specifically assist countries with reform and capacity building in this area… The funding would be designed as a light management fund or facility, housed in an existing development institution, with fast and efficient access to resources (building on the model of, or perhaps even expanding an existing instrument such as PPIAF of infoDev).
Assuming that the World Bank is correct, the report calls into question the whole bloody exercise of having a United Nations conference (or two) on bridging the digital divide. If all that is necessary is for national governments to create more favorable domestic regulatory environment for private investment, why spend the millions and millions of dollars to gather gather heads of state, CEOs and civil society leaders in Tunis in November? Shouldn’t we just declare success, click glasses of champagne and mint tea and then head back home?
No, we should not.
The goal of the WSIS has never merely been about getting a cellphone into the hands of every bushman in the Serengeti. It has been about re-affirming the universal values and principles of the international community and examining how to reflect those values within the emerging Information Society. Universal access to ICTs is only one piece of the puzzle. More important, fundamental questions that need to be addressed include:
- What is the right balance between information security and personal privacy?
- How do we ensure that the universal human rights of freedom of expression and freedom of the press are protected in both new and traditional media?
- Should control of the key assets of internet infrastructure reside with the private sector, governments, civil society or some mix of all three?
- How do we investigate cybercrime while protecting civil liberties?
- How do we ensure that the world’s linguistic diversity flourishes instead of stagnates in the Information Society?
- How are we preserving and disseminating cultural knowledge with new technology?
None of these questions, or other pressing societal questions, will be addressed by a myopic focus solely on ICT market penetration and an enabling FDI environment. And yet these are all public policy decisions that every government, every business and every citizen of the world is confronted with. Will the WSIS in November address any of these questions? If so, then we should go. If not, than we should save the airfare.